This was a blogathon a couple months ago, but we here at the Ascetic Sensualists haven’t developed the power to detect blogathons before they occur. To make it interesting we’ll ignore any Coen, Tarantino, Scorsese or W. Anderson contributions… for now.

Sometimes I can’t help but get irritated when a movie eschews all music. It seems like a stunt or affectation, in our world of pervasive noise and overlapping musical environments. A film doesn’t need a soundtrack of pop songs, but the lack of any soundtrack at all can be awkward. The ideal situation might be one single well-chosen song as the centerpiece of all the film’s music. In the category of the song [not score, not background music], here are a few of my favorite song choices by filmmakers.

  • Shoot the Piano Player // Tirez sur le Pianiste [François Truffaut, 1960]. How to get across the ennui and desperation of Charles Aznavour’s seemingly well-situated protagonist? Aznavour doesn’t need much help with that, but the milieu is well established by combining his weariness and jovial japester Boby Lapointe’s look of terrified focus as they blast through a ballad of winking wordplay called “Framboise”. Youtube enables us to hear dozens of other Boby Lapointe songs and it’s clear that he was normally … a  lot more relaxed, to an extent where he sounds like a children’s singer. Here’s a less harried version of “Framboise”.
  • The Servant [Joseph Losey, 1963]. Why do the characters in The Servant keep putting the needle down and listening to this song? It’s so miserable and they’re striving not to be miserable. Its status as the film’s love theme is entirely appropriate, as a torch song by middlebrow standard-interpreter Cleo Laine, with music by her saxophonist husband John Dankworth … and lyrics, like the rest of the script, by Harold Pinter. But its presence as something the women in the film want to immerse themselves in? Pinter being perverse and ironical, or a straightforward insinuation that Susan [Wendy Craig] has eloquent misgivings about her vapid fiance [James Fox], despite her own vapidity? “All Gone” could be the key to the whole story, if we can figure out what its lyrics are about. After seeing this film I got a whole Laine / Dankworth compilation CD. “Thieving Boy” is another good one.
  • Fast Times at Ridgemont High [Amy Heckerling, 1982]. Is there any music in this movie other than Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby”?  Its mood pervades the whole film. Wistfulness, pessimism, determination, summer, nostalgia for something that may not have happened yet. And taken on its own, the song is a good response to 1981’s twin exemplars of “Is she really going out with him?” whininess, “Jessie’s Girl” and “What She Does To Me”. She’s probably somebody’s baby, but you have no evidence of that as yet. Don’t give up!
  • Light Sleeper [Paul Schrader, 1992]. Schrader shared his anachronistically passionate Christian impulses with Michael Been of The Call, who provided much of the music for this moody, moody movie about a drug dealer’s efforts to justify his existence. Been’s song “World on Fire” accompanies the opening credits, but I barely noticed it. An hour later it plays again during a pivotal scene [I think Willem Dafoe’s protagonist was frantically looking for a gun in a bar] and I started caring intently about the character, reminded of the scene in Mona Lisa where Genesis’s “In Too Deep” plays as Bob Hoskins struggles to stay objective about Cathy Tyson. I thought of listing that song/film as well, but was disenchanted by how every Youtube version of “In Too Deep” is laden with American Psycho joke comments.
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley [Anthony Minghella, 1999]. Another nightclub performance early in a film, establishing the setting. Jude Law beckons Matt Damon onto a stage for an exhilarating rendition of Renato Carosone’s “Tu Vuò Fà l’Americano”. You’d like to spend time with these people, wouldn’t you? Absolutely.

  • Dogma [Kevin Smith, 1999]. This might be my favorite use of the closing-credits song. After two hours of idea after idea after idea, that somehow hang together as a philosophy despite being funny, we see the interaction of God [Alanis Morissette] with humans, and it’s an intentional anticlimax / cop-out. I was unsatisfied. It’s impressive, this notion of God, but it’s unsatisfying that this is the extent of what God chooses to do, that God chooses to be uninterpretable. Then the credits begin and Morissette’s own song “Still” starts to play. At first it’s a bit much like her song “Uninvited” from City of Angels. However … seemingly written specifically for the credits, clearly written from God’s point of view, it’s a window for the viewer to see what the film’s characters can’t see, since she never speaks. An unexpected bonus. It was transfixing and I rewound when it was over to listen to the whole six minutes again, as the tiny white names scrolled by.
  • I’ve always been a Morissette sympathizer, though only the first album has songs I want to hear over and over. Think of it this way: her lyrics are like what college students write for poetry open-mics. But most people at poetry open-mics are terrible. And even something well-written has to also be well-delivered in these scenarios. Meanwhile, rock bands tend to be people who like playing music and can’t come up with much to write about except ex-girlfriends or the concept of freedom. Bands from Thin Lizzy to The Fall to Prolapse to Ezra Furman & the Harpoons have shown us that set to a good piece of rock music, words written with no attention to meter or rhyme take on an unpredictable rhythm of their own and can be just as memorable/catchy as something by the Posies. So why not put together the person who feels like she has a lot to say and has the self-confidence to enunciate properly, with the people who know how to construct a rock song? This was the genius of Glen Ballard.
  • So few filmmakers choose something meaningful for the closing credits, even when they choose something. It’s usually a familiar pop song to leave the audience feeling good, or a piece of mood music, or a song that appeared earlier in the film, now taken out of context [this was annoying in The Secret of Kells]. And in most anime, the opening credits have a rock song seemingly chosen at random, and the closing credits have a sappy ballad seemingly chosen at random. In Dogma the credits music is important to the movie’s events. It’s like incorporating the frame into your painting.
  • Boiler Room [Ben Younger, 2000]. The notion of the hard-hitting rap song ironically appropriated by white boys may be tiresome, but it’s not that common as a movie trope. We’re all familiar with the Geto Boys printer-smashing scene in Office Space. Boiler Room uses a comparable song in a montage that mocks its characters’ pretense of being badass and wealthy, in between scenes intended to convince us that they actually are rather badass and would soon be wealthy if not for the interference of the levelling hand of fate. The rest of Boiler Room is pretty unexciting, except  for some office scenes that show us the steps needed to be a badass salesdouche. This post by Zack Dennis clued me in to Boiler Room‘s era-defining use of Beanie Sigel’s “What a Thug About”.
  • Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back [Kevin Smith, 2001]. Smith’s redundantly repeated reiterations of pop culture references seem designed to be irritating, but this one just seems so sincere. It seems like the movie was filmed in the three-week period of Jay and Silent Bob’s life when they were really into Morris Day & The Time, and serendipity built it up to a whole phenomenon with a live performance of “Jungle Love” over the closing credits. And a month later Jay and Silent Bob would have other adventures while being big into Deicide or Vashti Bunyan or playing pooh-sticks or something. You never know what these chaps will do next.

"Don't you never say an unkind word about The Time! Me and Silent Bob modeled our whole ####ing lives around Morris Day and Jerome."

  • Linda Linda Linda [Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005]. Total catharsis! :-D Both songs tie for awesomeness. But it must be earned.
    Here’s the Blue Hearts [The Clash of Japan? maybe] doing the original version of “Owaranai Uta”, and a live “Linda Linda”.
  • Cargo 200 // Груз 200 [Alexey Balabanov, 2007]. One of the less defensible audience endurance tests in recent years, this movie’s “You think Putin is bad? Permit me to remind you what the Chernenko era was like. Now aren’t you glad to have Vlad?” attitude is as irritating as the blank looks on all the characters who aren’t supposed to be psychotic sadists. [The psychotic sadists also have blank looks.] But it enters my mind regularly because of the classic piece of seventies folk-pop that comes on just about every time someone is driving — Ariel’s “V Krayu Magnoliy” (“The Edge of Magnolia”). Afriend who speaks Russian says “I think it’s based on a book about going on vacation in Sochi (black sea). Lyrics are about flowers and the ocean, how much fun it is to be there, dance, meet girls etc.” You know, like if “Dancin’ in the Moonlight” was the theme from House of 1000 Corpses. Which did use some kitschy country songs to good effect, but nothing that sticks with you.